Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Swords, Sorcery, & Social Justice – The Huntsman: Winter's War

Emily Blunt (left) and Charlize Theron in The Huntsman: Winter's War.

Watching The Huntsman: Winter’s War, a sequel to a fantasy retelling of Snow White that I never bothered to see, I got the distinct impression that I was watching something made for someone else. The elaborate costuming, hammy overacting, and romantic subplots should have been clues, but all it took was a cursory scan of the audience filing out of the cinema afterward for me to finally realize who that “someone else” was. I was surrounded by my comrades, my kin, my counterparts in the endorsement of shlocky fantasy cinema: female nerds.

I make the distinction from any other brand of nerd simply because I believe – at least in terms of what our modern theatres have to offer – that they’re an ill-served subset of our culture. Examples of enjoyable fantasy cinema aimed at a female audience are few and far between, and I think that’s deplorable. For every big-budget adolescent male power fantasy, from Hercules to Gods of Egypt, there’s a pathetic Mortal Instruments or a forgotten Beautiful Creatures, like stringy bones tossed to a starving dog. Our culture gives these dedicated dorks no real choice: they can enjoy, despite themselves, the male-dominated films that are given reasonable budgets and good marketing, or they can settle for the scraps left over. Many girls adore Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films – mostly because they’re excellent – but they do so in spite of the trilogy’s almost medieval lack of female representation. Really, there’s no reason we can’t incorporate elements that are relatable to women into these crappy fantasy films, is there? This isn’t the nineties anymore, when Happy Meals were as segregated as the two halves of the dance floor at a Hasidic wedding. Everyone deserves a trashterpiece now and again, right?

Thank god for films like Huntsman that can be heavy on interesting (and powerful) female characters and low on quality dialogue and meaningful plotting. I had a blast watching this piece of crap and I know everyone else in the audience did too, because despite the cheese, there’s a lot to love. No knowledge of Snow White & The Huntsman (2012) is necessary here (the events of that film occur during a “Seven Years Later” transition into the latter half of this film), and I was thankful for that. The only returning characters are Chris Hemsworth’s titular huntsman Eric (used primarily for his beefcake-related assets) and Charlize Theron’s evil mage-queen Revenna, whose relationship with her sister Freya (Emily Blunt), who is introduced for the first time here, forms the backbone of the story. As a slightly younger witch-queen, Revenna awakens the latent ice magic in her sister by arranging the death of Freya’s newborn child, but gets trapped later on in her golden mirror (of “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall” fame) by that pesky Snow White. Consumed by grief, Freya retreats to an icy fortress and kidnaps children from all over the realm, training them in combat so she may one day conquer the world and destroy any trace of the one thing she can’t have for herself: love. Eric – and secret squeeze Sara (Jessica Chastain) – are two such unlucky soldiers, banished by Freya for their perfectly natural interest in having hot bang sessions in geothermal springs. Freya hunts them down and Revenna plots to return and claim her throne. It’s dumb, and fun, and sometimes genuinely interesting, whether through a small indulgence in a cool visual design element or a fascinatingly clunky line reading. I haven’t seen fantasy like this since Ladyhawke, where the power of love is unironically the key to everything. It’s like Krull as directed by Jane Campion.

As someone not terribly interested in fashion, costume work has to be pretty outlandish to catch my attention – so if I was wowed by all the jeweled gowns, exquisite bouffants, studded leather armours, and glittering jewelry in Huntsman, I can only imagine the shuddering glee the rest of the audience must have been experiencing at all that visual splendour. I believe this had an effect on the cast, too; the sister queens, in particular, appear to be having so much fun prancing around in these insane getups that their performances seem extra enthusiastic. I can only conclude that the costumes must be as fun to wear as they are to look at. Chastain, along with Hemsworth, gets to experience the other side of the coin: leaping around and kicking ass in her finely-tailored leathers, Sara is every girl’s rebuke to the macho apes they’ve been asked to relate to for decades. She is a warrior and a woman both, and she holds the cards in her relationship with Eric, who follows her around like a puppy trying to convince her he’s a nice guy. It’s very refreshing.

Jessica Chastain in The Huntsman Winter's War.

In the middle of the film, Sara and Eric team up with a pair of dwarves played by Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, and they quest together through a dangerous forest in search of Revenna’s mirror, encountering traps, rickety rope bridges, gold-loving kobolds, and a pair of female dwarves (Sheridan Smith & Alexandra Roach) who reluctantly join their cause. It was like watching a Dungeons & Dragons module run by my sister, and it made me happier than I can express that something so nerdy, and so clearly aimed at girls, was getting screentime with an appreciative (and full) audience. There’s far more characterization given to the dwarves, who would ordinarily be sidelined as comic relief, than any other film would bother with – Huntsman even going so far as to introduce cute little romance subplots between them. The climax has no scene where Freya is beheaded by a vengeful Eric; she and Revenna are the ones with interpersonal conflict, and they resolve it without outside help – and instead of the cold, empty catharsis that follows every revenge killing in every movie ever, at the end of Huntsman the bad characters kill each other off, the good characters survive, and everyone pairs off and starts making out. There’s a level of optimism and whimsy here that’s rarely seen in male-dominated media anymore, and it really makes me wonder why that is. It brings a tear to the eye.

Huntsman’s script is competent, if cheesy, and the visual effects and action are quite good. It’s the inconsistency of the performances that’s likely to alienate viewers who don’t jive with shlock: Theron and Blunt absolutely swing for the fences as the witch-sisters, bringing their very real talent to very melodramatic roles, but Chastain and Hemsworth are appalling as the film’s leads. They – a Californian and an Australian, I remind you – both attempt a Scottish brogue that meanders through Irish, South African, and British, when it’s comprehensible at all. Their chemistry works, largely due to Chastain’s efforts, but every time they opened their mouths I started cringing. The dwarves were predictably fun, thankfully, with Sheridan Smith in the standout role as Bromwyn, who is as bizarrely attractive as she is dwarvishly blunt and crass. Her cussing bouts with the sour Brydon produced the kind of belly laughs usually reserved for Monty Python, or something equally representative of the best of British humour. And I didn’t even mention Liam Neeson’s narration…

That’s Huntsman for you: when it works, it works like gangbusters. I guarantee it won’t work for everyone, but then, if this doesn’t pique your interest, the majority of other films have probably got you covered. Huntsman is for lovers of Willow and The NeverEnding Story, for those who delight in the romance and ribaldry and barely-disguised darkness of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for those who feel that fantasy should be, well, fantastical and fun. Huntsman is for every girl or woman who watched The Last Witch Hunter hoping that it might show them something of interest. It’s not great – but it’s for you, and that’s what counts.
– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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